Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Brains on the tablet

I hope you’re not eating, with the question I’m about to ask. What do you think of when you hear “Brains on the table”? Probably something unappealing, I imagine. It was a peculiar thing for me to hear in my first week of a new job over three years ago...

When Ahmed (our director and a senior researcher at Newcastle University) gave me a research paper with this title, I’m 97% (no: 100%) sure that he wasn’t trying to put me off the office biscuits. He was actually introducing me to research that spanned back many years, all about the benefits of students externalising their thoughts.

The paper I’m talking about is this one, by David Leat, now a consultant to our company, and Adam Nichols. They explore how, with the use of a paper tool called Mysteries, they were able to see pupils’ “cognitive processes”. Hence their brains being on the table!

Other ways of saying it:
  • making students’ thinking visible
  • providing a window into students’ minds
  • externalisation of thoughts
The key benefit is that by understanding how students think, many things can be identified; such as what they’re doing well and what they’re struggling with. Plus how and why.

Mysteries were first developed by David and the Thinking Through Geography group. Small groups would be given lots of snippets of text, and sometimes images, that usually had a narrative thread to them. One main, open question about the snippets would be asked. Students typically read through the snippets first, then organised them into different piles, before laying them out in a chain to build understanding and form an answer. As well as hearing groups’ discussions, teachers could then also view their final layouts, which were a vision of how students had arrived at their conclusion. David explains “it quickly became apparent that there was something very interesting going on as students manipulated the little snippets of paper”.

Brains on the tablet

During Ahmed’s PhD, he came to work with David, and saw the potential of Mysteries. He gave it a digital transformation and the idea blossomed into what you may now know as Digital Mysteries, the iPad apps that have had over 350,000 downloads across 60 countries. These were developed in coordination with many different teachers, firstly for the UK curriculum then worldwide, and because of their popularity, we wanted to give people the chance to create their own! This is where Thinking Kit comes in - tasks can now be tailored exactly to your students’ needs, or even created by the students themselves.

When activities are completed by students on iPads, we call it ‘brains on the tablet’, and it’s an excellent source for formative assessment. As David and Ahmed say in their article, published in the Creative Teaching & Learning journal (email if you’d like a free copy of the piece), formative assessment “is grounded in talk about thinking and ideas - therefore, any serious discussion generated by the mystery or during the reflection phase, is formative, as it helps shape ideas and scaffold the sense making process”.

  Read more on Moseley et al.’s work here.

Things provided in the app:
  • a structure for collaborative learning. It flips between individual and group work throughout, meaning regular discussion triggers and openly expressed thoughts, as well as concentration time.
  • tools to emphasise cognitive skills, such as ‘named groups’ to visibly categorise information, ‘sticky tapes’ to show connections and ‘notes’ to express ideas/opinions.
  • an interactive playback of the session to go over alone, as a group or even as a class.
As this screenshot shows, all students must tap their name to agree they’ve read the instructions.

As a result of all of the above, the teacher can then:
  • see the current ‘state of play’ but also history (e.g. ‘deleted’ notes and groups).
  • tweak the difficulty of future tasks by removing slips or altering the question.
  • integrate the activity with other lesson planning so that those who finish early can move onto something else.
  • easily transition between a chat with an individual, a group or the whole class.
  • extend the outcome beyond a session (students can print off, email, and reflect upon, an automatically generated PDF report).
Thinking Kit also allows students to do the creating too. Activities could be based on something they’ve learned about in class, a topic they’re yet to be introduced to (so they have to carry out research - see students’ work on migration here), fieldwork or something they simply have passion for and want to help others learn about. In a previous blog post, we talked about how students of Broadwood Primary School created their own iPad activities on various topics; from Batman, to The Twits, to Minecraft! All the while, they developed key digital skills that some had never experienced before.

To see what types of activities we mean, explore our developer page on the App Store. We have many free pre-prepared activities and the Thinking Kit App is completely free. To create your own, or to get students to, have a 30 day free trial (no card details required) at

Friday, 16 September 2016

World Maritime Day - FREE iPad activity

29th September 2016 marks the World Maritime Day Forum 2016. A large debate will be going on with four panellists, all about the challenges that global shipping faces. The information page on the day has lots of useful information  about the theme, so take a look if you are interested. You can also check out @IMOHQ, the International Maritime Organization's Twitter page, plus the hashtag #WorldMaritimeDay.

To join in ourselves, we have transformed one of our Digital Mysteries iPad apps into a FREE Thinking Kit activity: Captain Quint. Students are asked to work out what they think happened when Captain Quint and his crew aimed to sail round the world in 50 days. The activity is aimed at those around age 10-12 and works on a whole bunch of mathematics skills, plus collaboration, thinking skills and problem-solving! Cards include maps, tables, lots of story-based clues and hints about what the characters are like.

To download it:
  1. Download the Thinking Kit App if you haven't already - search the title on the App Store or click here.
  2. Open the app, tap Educator or Learner then Download Task.
  3. Enter the code 7017.
A screenshot of the activity within the app.
Full activity description

This activity maps to the maths curriculum. Specifically:
  • Number – addition and subtraction
  • Number – multiplication and division
  • Number – fractions (including percentages)
  • Statistics
  • Measurement
Although the calculation involved in Captain Quint requires precision, the task is open-ended and provides scope for pupils to come up with and justify more than one possible scenario.

The task will challenge pupils to decide and justify to each other which operations and methods they need to use to solve a multistep problem.  As well as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, some calculations also involve fractions and knowledge of percentage and fraction equivalents. Pupils will need to interpret information in tables, graphs and maps and be able to compare and calculate different measures, involving capacity and distance over time.

It could be used diagnostically within the maths curriculum to assess pupils’ confidence in recognising and applying these concepts.

This task was originally designed with three difficulty levels in mind. By default, the task is the 'hard' option as it has all cards included. In the Thinking Kit Creator, you can edit the activity. For Medium difficulty, delete card 26. For Easy difficulty, delete cards 21-26.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Back to school: 30% discount

If you haven't heard of Thinking Kit before, it is a quick way for teachers and students to create their OWN activities for iPads quickly and simply. It comes in two parts – the creator, which can be used on any browser on any device, and the free iPad app (which is how tasks get downloaded onto iPads).

 Please see this short video for an introduction:

So many different types of activities can be created. They can be as simple as sorting animals into different categories or moving images and facts from a historical era into a timeline. Problem-solving scenarios are another example, making it the perfect tool to encourage discussion. The kit can be used with any subject too so it's really versatile. As the content is added by users, it also means the kit can be used with anyone age 7+.

Teachers can create tasks quickly for the next/same day, or students can create tasks for their peers to solve - in their class, or even in another country if they make their task public!

We are offering a special 30% discount on all subscriptions of the Thinking Kit Creator until 30th September 2016. To get the discounted price, when you go to pay, simply add the code backtoschool to the Discount Code field and click Apply. If you want to pay by an alternative method, please email and quote the code.

For more information, please see, explore our blog for example of how it has been used, or email us!

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

7 ways to mark World Tourism Day in school

World Tourism Day 2016 celebrations will be held on Tuesday 27th September and are being hosted by Thailand. The initiative provides lots of inspiration for classroom activities and is an opportunity to highlight key messages in an enjoyable way for students, whilst also allowing teachers to cover segments of the curriculum.

"Tourism for all!"

Tourism has become such a big part of our lives, that we perhaps can take it for granted sometimes. According to the official World Tourism Day (WTD) 2016 site, there's around 1.2 billion people travelling the world. The theme of the event this year is to promote how important it is that everyone should have access to these experiences.

 "We come across new people, new sights and new ideas."

No matter what ages you work with, the day itself, this year's theme and the general topic of tourism opens up a lot of ideas to use in class. Here, we've listed seven ideas for you to mark it in school:

(With any of these ideas, you can weave 2016's theme into your activities by asking students further questions. E.g. 'How could a school trip to _______ be made more accessible?')

  1. Virtual tourism: Mystery Skype or Google Earth

    It's an excellent way to help your students learn about other countries and cultures plus share their own experience too. There are some brilliant ideas out there on the most creative ways to do this.

    Skype Education is easy to navigate around and helps you find the best match for you and your class. I’ve seen so many teachers share things about the sessions they’ve had – so if you haven’t already, give it a try! Mystery Skype is a big branch of this. Invented by teachers, the general idea is that one class has to guess the location of the other class, all through Skype! Click here for a 2016 'Mystery Skype update' by education thought leader Craig Kemp, a big fan.

    There’s also many great ideas on using Google Earth to explore the world too – whether you have desktops or tablets, there’s a way to get your students virtually touring!

  2. Organise a trip somewhere

    It's almost definitely something you've done before, and probably more hassle than a virtual trip, but it's so worth it. Seeing your students enlightened by the prospect - then reality - of visiting somewhere they’ve never been or experienced before, is wonderful.

    It can be a different continent (wow!), a different country, a different town or even a local site they’ve never been; whatever it is, starting planning now brings it that bit closer.

  3.  Have a ‘try another culture’ day

    How this works depend on a few things – your role, how big your school or class is or even the enthusiasm of colleagues. It can be a schoolwide event, or just your class, but this can be a great way for students to experience other foods, languages, customs and character.

    It could mean simply bringing in a few different types of snack-type food and your class guessing which country it originates from, or it could be students bringing in things themselves. Get a class on Skype from the country you focus on, or perhaps invite in a speaker from there! Alternatively, select a theme, such as future World Cup, Olympics or Euro hosts.

  4. Get students sharing their own experiences of tourism

    They could write a review, newspaper article, blog post (if you have a school blog) or even design a leaflet for tourists. This doesn’t mean they need to have been somewhere far away or expensive – it could be where your school is, it could be on a place they visited at the weekend or where they went on a school trip. How about somewhere that's great for catching Pok√©mon?

    You could even ask them to do it about somewhere they want to go, then they’ll have to do lots of research!
  5. Run a SOLE session

    If you haven’t heard about Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs), read about them here. In short, they are “when educators and/or parents encourage kids to work in groups that they form, and are free to change, to answer big, open questions by using the internet” (SOLE toolkit).

    How about making the big question something tourism related? An example could be "How can tourism be made more accessible to everyone?", "What is the best country to visit in the world?", "What defines a tourist?" or anything you think.

  6. Create your own iPad activity or get students to create one themselves
    Package and all inclusive holidays are becoming very popular in recent years
    A card from an activity that we made

    This is a brilliant way to engage students in the theme - they find it very exciting to see their own app-like activities on iPads. They can use Thinking Kit to add text and images about a topic of their choice, add a question they want to pose to other students, then the tool will transform that information into an interactive iPad activity - ready to download FREE from anywhere in the world (if they want to share their Task Code, that is).

    Alternatively, you can easily create an activity for your students. Make it a 'mystery' style activity, like 'Decline of coastal resorts' or a simple matching exercise, it's completely up to you.

    Get a 30 day free trial of the creation side at (all you need is an email address). The app side, which students use to download activities onto iPads, is always FREE. Search Thinking Kit App on the App Store or click here.
  7. Explore the official website's resources, social media pages and get involved in events and discussions

  8. If you have any ideas or have planned something already, please do comment or let us know on Twitter (@refthinking).